August 30, 2002, 12:00 AM

How BackcountryStore.com boosts online sales with expert help

The outdoor gear retailer hires only hard-core athletes for its call center--and they close equipment sales at a rate 25% higher than reps inexperienced in outdoor sports. Among the employment perqs: time off to go skiing, free ski passes.

 

Outdoor gear retailer BackcountryStore.com, headquartered in prime snow country in Heber, UT, has come up with a way to sell more goods online: staff the call center with experts who eat, sleep and breathe the merchandise. Though the 10-person staff at the company’s web-enabled call center also learn from in-house equipment clinics that manufacturers typically provide to call center staff, their product knowledge is based on experience as users and goes far beyond such training sessions, John Bresee, vice president of marketing, tells Internet Retailer.

For its call center, BackcountryStore.com hires only dedicated and hard-core outdoor sports athletes. “When our affiliate manager took a vacation, he summited Mount Rainier. Our customer service guys are doing things like hiking the Grand Tetons in the spring, a difficult thing to do,” says Bresee. “So when a customer calls to ask about a stove and a gear expert is able to say, ‘I had problems lighting that stove when I used it last weekend,’ that’s powerful. We figured that if these were the people at our call center, we would have a huge advantage. It’s probably our main differentiator in the category.”

In fact, recent analysis has confirmed Breese’s hunch. BackcountryStore.com’s gear experts, who also answer questions via live chat, a facility the online-only company added this year, close 25% more sales than do agents at the traditional call center the company uses for overflow and weekends, and their order size is on average $50 higher.

BackcountryStore’s employee training focus is different from most retailers because it hires workers who already have category expertise. “Because experience with the gear is more important to us than familiarity with Windows, for example, we do have some technology training costs,” Bresee says. Call center agents typically start on hourly wages, then move to salary compensation. Employees get flexible work hours so they can ski, free passes to top ski areas and equipment discounts.

Bresee says the area has plenty of educated, hard core “ski bums” who fit the bill from the enthusiast perspective, but the right employees are still difficult to find. For that reason, he has running ads in local newspapers. “For every 10 people we interview, we hire one,” he says. “There comes a time in the lives of these guys where they are willing to work full time for their happiness, sanity and stability – but they have to be sitting in that chair wishing they were out on the mountain. It’s an elusive characteristic, but when we see it, we know it.”

 

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